Ever since I read Dwight Macdonald’s essay “Masscult and Midcult”—in Andrew Ross’s excellent undergraduate seminar on intellectuals and popular culture, which formed the basis for his equally excellent book No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture—I’ve known better than to complain about the literary tastes of the mainstream media. But this list (h/t Michael Busch) of what the staff at the New York Times Magazine considers to be “the best fiction of all time” brought me up short.
It’s not just that the staffers had a lengthy debate as to which was better: Lolita or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Nabokov v. Chabon? Really?) Nor is it that they were debating which of these two books is the finest novel of all time (ahead, one gathers, of Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, and so on.)
No, what made me wince is the list of books each of the staffers proposed as his or her personal candidate for “the best fiction of all time.” Nominees included: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse Five, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Great Gatsby.
What do these novels have in common (aside from being written in the 20th century)? I read them in high school. (Except for A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I’ve never read; I have, however, read The World According to Garp. In high school.) Indeed, the author of the Times piece writes, “Tenth-grade English teachers all over the country can congratulate themselves on a job well done.” Though judging by the preceding sentence (“The biggest lesson learned from this exercise are that we have some high-falutin’ readers in this office”), I gather he has something else in mind.
These books—again, with the exception of Owen Meany—aren’t masscult or midcult, though there’s plenty of that on the list, starting with Chabon himself, too. What they are is starter novels for new readers. Or, as it turns out, favorite novels of terminal readers, who’ll never pick up another good book again.
Contra Macdonald, it seems that the literary taste of the mainstream media is neither highbrow nor lowbrow; it’s just juvenile, a syllabus of arrested development.